“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
It is with these very words (Luke 23:34) that Jesus of Nazareth, hanging from that cross atop that hill on the eve of the Passover festival nearly two thousand years ago, summarized to us His entire message while here on earth, a message so straightforward yet confusing that it is a shock yet perfectly understandable that no one seemed to fully understand it until after His subsequent death and resurrection. Even now, two millennia later, people still fail to properly grasp the meaning of this statement and its effect on the rest of Christ’s ministry; they twist His words and give them a slightly different connotation that, while not fully changing the message He preached, still alters it in the slightest sense.
First we must return to the biggest question surrounding the entire ordeal: How could Jesus – who was, at this particular moment of passion, in the midst of a multi-hour execution that would result in His world-renowned murder – ask His Father to forgive those who put Him in such a drastic situation, a people who so clearly knew exactly what they were doing? His wrists and feet were impaled against wooden beams, His arms outstretched so that they could offer Him no support as He remained there, suspended, for multiple hours on end…and this all after a night of sleeplessness in which He had been pushed around, mocked, and beaten, parts of His hair and beard ripped out, and then blindfolded only to be beaten again. He had been flogged in a way that typically killed the victim, and even after this – though blood drenched His body and internal organs were surely visible from even a passerby – He was forced to place a heavy wooden patibulum atop His shoulders and carry it a quarter mile to the place where He was then nailed to the very beam He carried, hoisted in the air for all to see and mock even more. He was stripped of His clothing except for a crown of thorns which they had placed on His head in mockery, and there He would remain for six hours performing the “Dance of Death” – the constant act of rising and falling that the crucified would undergo as they struggled to prevent themselves from suffocating due to the strain on their chests. Just as was prophesied, “So His appearance was marred more than any man and His form more than the sons of men” (Isa 52:14).
Yet Jesus insisted that these Roman soldiers – these men who had done this same exact thing to thousands of Jews before Him and would go on to do it to thousands more afterwards – did not know what they were doing. He asked his Father to forgive them, though He had every right to look down upon them with utter hate.
NOW LET’s BE HONEST…it’s hard to wrap our minds around the type of love one must have to forgive such a people, especially while they are in the midst of causing the affliction of which you choose to forgive them. Sure, the argument could be made that Jesus was referring to the fact that they were killing the Son of God – a fact which they were ignorant to thanks to their unbelief – but still, to ask for forgiveness in a moment such as that? It’s something we can’t seem to wrap our minds around. Just as Jesus had told Peter to forgive people “seventy times seven” times (Matt 18:21-22), so He went on to prove that He lived by His words even in a moment where unforgiveness could so easily be justified. Here, Jesus is tempted before His accusers and followers alike, yet shows them both that He still stands by the very words for which He is being punished.
So, in the end, I believe this calls us to ask what forgiveness truly is, for are we not called to be like Christ? We must look at Christ and see how He was capable of forgiving others so that we may likewise forgive those who have wronged us and thus be forgiven by our Father in heaven (Matt 6:14). If we who have no justification in holding grudges against another choose to not forgive those who wrong us, how can we expect God who has every right to judge us and hold our sin against us to instead choose to forgive us? “A man reaps what he sows” (Gal 6:7), and it is for this reason that we must learn what it means to truly forgive, another path so easily forgotten in the Christian Way.
And, like repentance, which has lost its true meaning in the realm of modern society (the Biblical word for repent actually means “to turn,” “return,” or “away from,” but that’s another message for another day), forgiveness also seems to have had its definition bent and twisted ever so slightly in the thousands of years since the Bible’s original construction. When we think of forgiveness, we carry with it some strange connotation of absolving someone of their crime committed against us, some weird idea of saying “Sorry” and “It’s okay” before moving on and acting as if nothing had ever happened. And while this does slightly point us in the right direction as to what Jesus meant by forgiveness, it also treads dangerous waters in the fact that it diverts us off the truth path of what He really and fully meant.
You see, the word forgiveness does not mean to simply pardon someone of their crime. Actually, in Greek, the word for forgiveness – aphesis (ἄφεσις), the same as “to exhale” – more properly means “to let go.” Rather than excusing the crime committed, we are actually called to let go of the offense totally, forsaking the very offense that we originally embraced and allowed to mutate us into harboring foul intentions towards the perpetrator. We can’t simply tell them “Oh, it’s totally fine!” and move on, because in doing so we leave the unforgiven sin dormant or perhaps even active within our hearts, an action that Jesus tells us is just as bad as making the sin known (Matt 5:27-28). We often tell ourselves that in order to forgive someone we must see a change in them, when in actuality it is we who need to do the changing.
The thing is, there’s only one way that a feat such as this is possible, and though I wish I could claim the contrary, I am forced to admit that it isn’t easy. You see, in order to truly forgive people in the same way that Jesus did, we must first hate this world, which is to say "hold it of no account" (John 12:24-26). We must love the world, yes, but in order to truly love it we must first hate it – hold it of no account – for in doing so we will be able to enjoy the world as God created it without fearing the grievances it may offer. Do you see?
Allow me to explain a little further: by judging yourself and judging others, you are binding yourself to the system of the world that surrounds you, a world that is governed by laws and thus will return that judgment against you with the very laws it has to follow. To hold onto an offense is to become slave to it, for you are acknowledging the fact that the crime committed against you has some lasting affect on you. In the realm of eternity, though, only one thing matters, and no crime committed against you on earth can affect it.
You see, Jesus isn’t bound by the laws of this world. Whereas the laws of physics tell you that if you step out of a boat you will surely sink, Jesus proved to us that one can walk on water (Matt 14:22-33). Whereas the laws of chemistry tell us that water does not turn into wine, Jesus said otherwise (John 2:1-11). Whereas the laws of meteorology tells us that every storm must run its course, Jesus calmed the storm with but a command from His mouth (Mark 4:35-41). Whereas the laws of the living tell us that death is permanent, Jesus proved that He can overcome it (Rev 1:18). Whereas the laws of logic tell us that trouble will come, Jesus promises us that we have no reason to fear, for He has overcome the world (John 16:33).
So now we can at last see the truth of the matter: in Jesus – whom we have become one with by putting our faith in Him (1 Cor 6:17) – there is no reason to fear the laws of this world, including the laws that tell you an “eye for an eye” and a “tooth for a tooth” (Exo 21:24).
For you see, if everyone keeps taking one another’s eyes, soon the whole world will be blind.
It is for this reason that Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matt 5:38-39). Whereas the laws of this world tell us that we should pay back evil with evil, Jesus, who has overcome this world, tells us instead to forgive and turn the other cheek. And we can do this because we are safe, complete, and risen through Jesus, dead to our old selves yet alive to our new and risen selves, whose salvation is secured for all eternity (Rom 6).
The devil’s greatest lie to you is that you are not who you truly are, and in telling you this lie he helps you hold grudges against those who have harmed you and maintain grievance against those who have offended you at some point. We live lives of judgment against the people, things, and places around us and we do not even realize it, yet with true sight –provided through Jesus – we can forsake these lies and embrace the truth that is found in our completion through Him.
Whenever you find yourself miserable or angry or hurt or fearful, it is only because at that moment you are identifying with your old self, the one who depended on protection and justice in our law-bound system known as the universe in which we live. But if, instead of living in this old self, you open your eyes to who you truly are – the son, the daughter of the Father – who will soon realize that nothing in this world can harm you, for you are protected and justified beneath His mighty wings (Psa 91:4). It is with this reassurance that we can go on to forgive others, and it is through this forgiveness that we can find love, joy, and peace in this world, free of the pain and grievance that unforgiveness brings.
So my challenge to you is this: Let go of all grievance and discover what it truly means to forgive. Go and find someone who has wronged you and forgive them…in the true sense of the word. Harbor no ill will but merely let it go, recognizing them as the son, the daughter of the Father in the same way that you are. Your Father did it for you, so you should do it for them. AND THEN DO IT AGAIN! Remember this: you are His child, you are complete, and you are glorified through Him, so go out and forgive just as He forgave you.